What Makes A Bar A True Dive

The anatomy of a dive bar, and how it lives in our language.

One of the first documented uses of the term "dive bar" was in an 1871 issue of the New York Herald, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. The SOED defines "dive bars" as "illegal drinking dens in the lower levels of a building, like a cellar or a basement," where patrons would "dive" into the venue. That definition eventually became obsolete, so in 1961, Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language swooped in and defined dive bars as "a disreputable resort for drinking or entertainment." Not the most ringing endorsement for any place, but that's okay, because none of these definitions hit the mark anymore. In the 21st century, how can we begin to explain what a dive bar is?


Every original parameter that was once set has shifted or disappeared completely. Still, remnants of the establishment's history linger, and you can see the DNA of those once illicit dens carried through in the modern version of such watering holes.

If we're looking to set an official definition of a dive, there are some traits we can consider landmarks on the road map toward the best of them. Old beer brand neons that have dimmed in the decades since they first lit up the glass block windows. The faded felt on a pool table that leans ever so slightly toward the corner closest to the bathroom. We know a dive bar when we see it—but that's the opposite of trying to define it. So let's at least try.


The concept of the “dive bar”

When I was a kid, my dad used to play club soccer and he would drag me along to watch him play. I'm from the land that made Michael Jordan king and Walter Payton a saint, so watching guys running around trying to kick a ball into a net was the worst.


After the games, the teams would meet up at this dingy, dark place for beers. It was lit by whatever light came in from the one window that wasn't boarded up, the stained-glass Old Style light hanging above that dirty green table, and whatever bulbs that weren't burnt out in the old jukebox. The same guys that were running around a huge field at full speed were now lighting up cigs and making whatever liquid filled their shot glasses disappear as they seemingly tried to empty every beer can in the place. There I sat, drinking my Coke out of a highball glass as my dad hustled guys at pool that he had just beat at soccer. I wrestled with making sense of it all. Where was I? What was this magical place?


The term "dive bar" was still about 20 years away from being introduced into my lexicon, but that subsequent mental checklist that I now use to define a dive bar had began being drafted back then. That checklist included interesting things I saw, like some guys glued to a small TV behind the bar with no sound on and blueish-green spots on the screen. It also included things I felt, from the sticky linoleum tile floors to my mom's palpable disgust when she knew we had made a pit stop on the way home from the Saturday soccer game. These were all associated with a place that I can now look back at and, without a doubt, define as a dive bar.

More recently, as I sat in my favorite neighborhood watering hole, waiting for my Coney dog to be "made" and enjoying the $7 shot-and-beer special, I sent out a text to a select group of friends. These are folks with whom I've enjoyed a libation at dive bars across the country and who also have a fond appreciation of them. I asked for their take on what makes a great dive bar. As the responses rolled in, obvious themes started to present themselves.

How a dive bar should look and feel

Dive bars aren't a new concept created for a hot restaurateur's brand portfolio. The ambiance inside of a beloved dive, therefore, should never be the product of an interior designer.

"A dive bar isn't a place where the shit on the walls is an unenthusiastic effort by entrepreneurs who are trying to capture what you liked about that place to begin with," said Jack O'Shea, professional guitar shredder and East Coast dive bar enthusiast.


The amount of beer brand swag and decorations that they collect is a nod to their history. At some point, the rad vintage beer signs that adorn those wood-paneled walls were just some tacky freebie that the bar received in exchange for buying cheap beer from a brand. If they weren't permanently affixed, they'd make a killing on eBay.

"Dive bars have ripped vinyl stools and a worn bar from years of forearms ordering cheap drinks and putting down deposits for darts," explained John Scoll, author and Chicago dive bar enthusiast. Dive bars, like your favorite pair of jeans, are perfectly worn in and just a bit dirty.

Where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came (sort of)

When you walk into a dive bar, it might start off as one of those classic scenes where the record scratches and all the patrons turn to stare at those who enter the bar. It's like the regulars and grumpy bartenders are all in one and one in all, self-policing and keeping each other in check.


"I always felt like a dive bar was like a single-celled organism," shared John Carruthers, pizza wizard, writer, and dive bar aficionado. "You can submit to the osmosis or just go elsewhere. You've been at a good dive when a group that doesn't really fit the place comes in, right? They don't really stay long."

Fear not: The regulars aren't there to do anything but watch TV with the sound off and enjoy the drink that the bartender had already for them before they walked in.

"It's all locals only and by the end of the night, if you're not a piece of shit, you'll have a lot of new friends," said O'Shea.

The price is right

Dive bars are seemingly the fiscally sensible drinking option where cash is king. If you don't have cash, there's a sketchy ATM at the back of the bar that just might steal your identity.

Keith Gabbet, a brewmaster and Boston dive bar enthusiast, points out that it is almost an impossibility for a dive bar not to have cheap beer-and-shot options.


"The beer should be reasonably priced and, if possible, include a shot for $1 extra," he said.

Your options at a dive are cheap domestic beers or the house "cocktails," which are simple mixed drinks in plastic cups. These concoctions rarely consist of more than one spirit and a splash of off-brand soda.

"Drinks at a dive should be strong and cheap," shared Kate Bernot, writer and Montana dive bar enthusiast. "I had a single whiskey ginger at my dive last weekend that almost knocked me on my ass."

Although dive bars have liquor, they're not the destination for a hipster mixologist with an old-timey villain mustache to whip you up a French-Polynesain-inspired tiki creation. Keep things simple.

It’s a vibe

When it comes to the physical and tangible characteristics of a dive bar, there's an undeniable overlap among the responses I received. Hearing each person talk about what a dive bar made them feel was almost like opening a window into each individual's heart and soul. Here's a selection of responses from the folks who know these establishments best.

  • AJ Patel, Doctor and Denver Dive Bar Enthusiast: "No scene, no themes, no expectations, no cocktails. Bartenders might be friendly, but they definitely should be salty. Dives are a place where everyone is welcome."
  • Christina Spurr, Minneapolis Dive Bar Enthusiast: "A good dive bar is for whether I'm in a good mood or trying to drown some sorrows. It should be fitting for both."
  • Kyle McCoy, Chef and Pittsburgh Dive Bar Enthusiast: "A dive bar doesn't have to be dirty, but it can't be too clean. And most importantly, it should be a place where the misfits and weirdos feel like they can be themselves."
  • Katie Molck, Writer and Louisville Dive Bar Enthusiast: "The best dive bars are relaxed, but they're the same ones that you're a little scared to go into. If you're asking yourself, 'Is this open to the public?' you're in a good dive bar."
  • Ryan Grillaert, Pizza Proprietor and Denver Dive Bar Enthusiast: "A good dive bar is like that reliable old pair of shoes you can never part with. It's been around forever, might have a couple holes in it, has a familiar funky smell, but it's comfortable and perfectly broken-in."
  • Isaac Liberman, Bar Owner and Chicago Dive Bar Enthusiast: "I feel the reason there are so many different definitions of what a dive bar is goes hand in hand with the most important element of one: each bar in the category is a standalone entity with a vibe and character distinctly created by those operating and frequenting it. I don't believe there should be a strict set of rules for what is and what isn't, but one common thread is certainly that there will be a lot of history being conveyed in one way or another."

The definition of a dive bar will always be hazy

You might be able to find definitions online, but the true essence of a dive bar is a personal one to each who seeks to define it. The embodiment of a dive bar is formed by the congregants of these nostalgic houses of vice worship. Dive bars ultimately seem to be a set of beliefs rather than a defined list of characteristics.


Tattoo artist and world dive bar connoisseur Kevin Leary said it best: "A great dive bar in itself is a contradiction. It's everything you need and nothing you want. It's inviting and at the same time disgusting. It's dark and dirty, but it makes you feel welcome and comfortable."